Category Archives: RAF history

Dear Chattie

Dear ChattieChattieSpitConingsby

I just want to say how wonderful it has been travelling with you on our 7,000-mile journey. 3,181 miles of that trip have been just you and me together, and on the back of the Mercedes Sprinter you have enjoyed at least another 4,000 miles of scenery. You have been on 60 airfields, stayed with friends, made new friends, including two Battle of Britain pilots who loved you at first sight, travelled in convoy with other Singers (including many Le Mans); you have been photographed like a celebrity, and waved and tooted at by children on the streets and cars on the road (remember that grey Ferrari on the way down from Scotland?); and you have have constantly brought close to mind my lovely Dad, as if had been sitting next to me and enjoying the ride with us both. Sometimes, once or twice, it seemed we were both driving you together.

You have been an absolute joy to drive. I confess that, at the beginning, there was a time when I thought we would not get on, and the whole thing would be a difficult and rather gruelling challenge, simply from the driving point of view. How wrong I was! Once Pin had shown me how your crash gear box worked, and he and Ground Control had taught me on the road, it all fell into place, and now one of my greatest pleasures is slipping into my seat behind the wheel, starting you up with that ‘whoomp’ of the engine, and taking you out on the road, double-dee-clutching like nobody’s business and loving those moments when, coming down from fourth to third, that little ‘vroom!’ in momentary neutral clicks your gears down smoothly to take us round the bends.

We have had our moments! As when, coming back through the Welsh mountains, I came all the way down the steep pass without understanding you needed me to hold your gear stick physically in gear down the hills – a hairy moment or two, there! But you never failed me. Well, only once, and the starter-motor cable was such a minor matter, and we managed it to the garage using a piece of string. Hardly worth mentioning. The flat tyre doesn’t count, as that could have happened to anyone.

You have been a delightful faithful companion on the road –  and a complete revelation to me. Chattie, what happens now? Ah, that is the question…

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Filed under Aviation history, motoring, RAF history

RAF Lossiemouth

My overwhelming impression here is a sense of direct connection with the fighting spirit of the past in a modern world still sadly filled with uncertainty and threat. Having close-up tours of the Typhoon and Tornado brought to the fore that unbroken link of innovation and development which means that, surprisingly, I can now see as many of the similarities as differences between these fast jet fighters and the Spitfires, Hurricanes, Beaufighters, Defiants, Typhoons and Tempests of seven

Sgt Stuart Smylie, presenting me with a print of the Typhoon behind me, signed by crew of II (AC) Squadron.

Sgt Stuart Smylie, presenting me with a print of the Typhoon behind me, signed by crew of II (AC) Squadron.

decades ago. At first, it seemed to me that all had changed and the old planes were unrecogniseable in the new, but beside the computer screen displays in the Typhoons, you open a tiny flap to discover three small instruments dials, by which the pilot can bring the plane home if the computer system should fail. The glass screen that displays green-lit information between the pilot and the bubble of the cockpit canopy are showing him the old instrument information in a different visual format, generated by computer, but still the same information, albeit with loads of other stuff available at whim.

My father wrote a long description (in Flying Blind: The Story of a Second World War Night Figher Pilot, Fonthill Media) of chasing a Heinkel bomber across the English Channel, with his Radar Operator, Deryk Hollinrake, struggling to keep its ‘blip’ on his small radar scanner; and the desperation to get a visual on the aircraft, as this was the only means of shooting it down. The old Mark I Eyball, as they say. Today, suffice it to say, it’s very different indeed. As the amazing technology was explained to me (a little), I kept thinking, ‘What would Dad have said to all this?’

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Controls, Beaufighter 1943

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Controls Typhoon 2015

One thing has not changed in all the years: the RAF family here – and elsewhere – has made me feel I belong, even though I know that belonging is because of my dear father, because of those years he served in the 1940s, and for whom it really was a family in more than just name.

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Filed under Airfields, Aviation, Aviation history, RAF history, Royal Air Force, Second World War

Filton – pinning the butterfly?

I am struggling to start writing about my visit to the old RAF Filton. In January 1943, my father picked up a brand-new Bristol Beaufighter from the factory here and flew it to Africa. My guide in April 2015 was Oliver Deardon, a Trustee of the Bristol Aero Collection, and I was touched by his courteous, comprehensive and thoughtful tour of this complex site, personalising it specially for me along the way. “Your father’s Beaufighter,” he said, “Would have come out of the building at the top of the site up there, and been brought down that hill; the street is wide enough, as you can see, to accommodate the aircrafts’ wings. And then it would have gone across the railway tracks, the only instance of a level crossing for aircraft use. That would bring it down here where your father would have received it and finally taken it onto the runway here and taken it way with him.”

In his memoirs, my father wrote: ‘On 7th January, along with ten other crews including Joe Berry and Ian Watson, Ralph and I went by coach to Filton near Bristol to collect a brand new Beaufighter from the factory: no. V8633. It was like taking my old car to a car dealer and then part-exchanging it for a brand new one. I felt sheer delight in flying the plane back to Lyneham. However, the bad weather didn’t allow us to carry out the consumption test on it until January 13th: an all-round trip around the coast from Cornwall to Blackpool and beyond that took 5.05 hours. The results were good: petrol consumption 80 gallons per hour; air miles 2.44 per gallon; range 1,448 miles; and the full endurance of the aircraft could be 7 hours 36 minutes. All very pleasing.’

Now I stood on the side of the runway space where that exciting event in his life took place. Every airfield, I am discovering, has its own atmosphere, and this is no exception. The sense is of an industrial-scale site, where the wide runway leans upwards insistently towards the horizon. Concorde stands to the left at the far end, nose pointed to the runway like a silent sentinel, and on the sloping hill to the left of that, and running all the way in parallel to the runway, is the Airbus production site with its huge factory sheds both old and modern. Opposite me in the distance, across the wide expanse of the airfield proper, are some large old hangars, one of which is to be preserved to house the Bristol Aero Collection. Next to it a new building is to be erected to house Concorde.

This whole site and its history is surely one of the most important in the development of British aviation technology. Sir George White, the Bristol magnate and entrepreneur whose vision and business acumen founded it all before the First World War should be better known, but as he declined to give his own name to the company and to the aeroplanes it made, preferring to name them after the city of Bristol itself, his name is unknown by the general public.

This site impresses as a whole, and speaks as a whole by its visual layout and its scale. The line of connection between production and flight is clear to me as I stand here, taking it in. But already a tide of new housing appears on a rise at the far side of the airfield, beyond the designated hangar reprieved for the museum. When that tide breaks, it will overrun the grass, the concrete runways, and even that take-off point to my far left where the pilots, my Dad included, took their new aircraft into the beyond. For the future there will be an Aerospace Heritage Centre, housing an important collection of archives and exhibits. But it will be cut off by that sea of housing from the living production site on the hill. The wholeness and integrity of this site will be lost for ever. I laud the building of a new Centre to remember the past, but I can’t help lamenting the loss of the reality as it passes away.

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Filed under Airfields, Aviation history, RAF history, Second World War, Uncategorized

A soaring lesson – Great Gransden

It’s a real shame that my version of the group photograph at Great Gransden airfield, at the Cambridge Gliding Centre, have not come out. I’ll have to wait until I get home next weekend and can download the pictures from my old digital SLR. It’s a shame because I had the chance of a lifetime (for me, anyway) to go up in a glider. What a fantastic day for it. The horizon was clear from edge to edge when we first started. The land here is flat so it was like being over an ocean of land. We were towed up by Chris (thank you, Chris); the glider lifts gently before the towing aircraft leaves the ground. I’m in a Perspex bubble, in a comfortable seat at the front, so the view is spread out all around me, and my pilot, Andrew Watson, talks me through what is happening, what he is doing to catch the thermals below the clouds, and what are the different landmarks we can see dropping away below us. The towing plane departs and suddenly the speed drops, with the noise of wind against the canopy, and it is very calm up here, under the clouds as they sail past just over our heads. We climb to 3,000 feet. The land is far below us. I find it difficult to relate to it up here. The fine detail has gone and it’s the land itself that we see stretched out like a drum skin over the world. Andrew offers me the controls but as he demonstrates and the glider dips and moves I feel a bit queasy, a legacy of some ear problems left over from a flu virus back in January, so sadly I passed on this one one for now.

As we circled back towards the airfield, and the houses came back into view amidst the outline of Great Gransden village (a car ambling along a country lane like a little ant) I thought of my father and his four visits here, making this same circling approach in 1944, seeing the same view, the same villages, those far horizons encircling his vision – our vision – and rushing down towards the awaiting grass. And, not for the first or last time, I wonder what on earth he would have thought if he’d known that I would be here now; after 70 years, in his air space.

[photographs to follow]

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Filed under Airfields, RAF history, Second World War

RIP Flight Lieutenant James “Jimmy” Ward

This was moving for me. At Landican Cemetery I laid a cross on the grave of one of my father’s great wartime friends, Jimmy Ward, on Dad’s behalf. Jimmy’s son Howard wanted to be with me on the day but couldn’t make it because he was recovering from an injury at the time.  You can read about Jimmy Ward in “Flying Blind”.

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Jimmy Ward, Canada, 1940

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Jimmy Ward – with my father in the RAF from the beginning of training in September 1940 and serving together in 456 Squadron until Nov 1941

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A proud day in Moose Jaw: ‘Wings Day’ February 1941: L to R: Dick Bastow, Dad (Bryan Wild), Bernard Wills, Jimmy Ward

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(The wording is personal, so deliberately obscured.)

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Chattie waits under the Cherry blossom.

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“To the dear memory of a beloved husband, Flt Lt JAMES WARD RAF, who died 7th November 1952 aged 52 years…”

 

 

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Filed under Aviation history, RAF history

Penrhos, and the Polish Squadrons

Nearly 8500 Polish airmen ended up in Britain in 1940, after first fighting losing battles in Poland and then France. They called Britain ‘The Island of Last Hope’. My father remembers serving alongside the Polish and  I remember him saying that they were good pilots and fighters; he said this with feeling.

After visiting raf Valley tomorrow I will be travelling to the site of the old RAF Penrhos, where many Polish servicemen were demobbed after the war. 2408 Polish airmen lost their lives fighting for freedom. The Polish Squadrons played a vital part in the Battle of Britain, showing tremendous valour and determination. Yet the peace they fought for, and won for the rest of Europe, didn’t come for their own country until half a century later. The Polish Housing Society, a charity set up in 1949, bought the old airfield and today it still runs a care home on the site. Here I hope to meet at least one Polish resident who served during the war.  That would be a great privilege.

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